THE WAR SURVEYED : A STRATEGY FOR THE AIR
THE Sylt raid, which was at first so warmly welcomed, is likely to produce dissatisfaction in the end. No one can criticise the .exploit in itself. It was organised with such evident skill and imagination, and carried out with such calm fidelity to plan, in spite of every attempt to check it or throw it into confusion, that whatever the results it had a certain perfection. An adaptation of the " chain " attack, it showed a vigorous novelty that, fortunately, we never expect in vain from our fighting services. As for the results, the clearest and most obvious has not even been mentioned. The obsession of numbers blinds us to the fact that it is quality that tells ; and there can be no doubt that the moral effect was remarkable. Materially, it is equally certain that much damage was done. Some neutrals say that it will take two years to repair the destruction. The Germans insist that it was confined to a house roof, a rifle range and some window- panes ; and, to prove their case, they staged one of those conducted tours which are so crude and confiding that they are only taken out of the reserve of dusty properties to reassure the convinced.
It matters very little in reality what damage was done. It lies somewhere between the two versions. What is significant is the planning, the contempt of danger and the smallness of the casualty list. In most of the German air-raids on England, the attacker has lost something like twenty-five per cent. In the raid on Sylt, planes bombed the island at intervals for a period of seven hours, and the loss was one plane only, which may be as low as two per cent. of the attacking force. All of this has been very pleasant to hear. It was an emotional release even for the airmen, who have become a little tired of the role of tract-peddling. But this mood has passed, and many of us are wondering why such an exhibition should be reserved for reprisal. Why do we not hit, instead of merely hitting back? The airmen are confident they can do it, and Lord Fisher reserved his bitterest scorn for the policy of waiting and only striking when we are hit. Everyone is legitimately proud of them and content that they have the courage and the skill. Tactically, they have been magnificent ; and the raid on Sylt suggests something beyond mere tactics.
Here, however, we approach a problem which is receiving far too little attention. Indeed, if certain soldiers and sailors have their way, it may receive even less. Air-Marshal Trenchard deserves to be remembered for his fight in the last war for the Independent Air Force. At the end of the war he was in command of nearly 350,000 officers and men who, on every fine night for over a year, had bombed the German railways, factories, barracks and munition-centres. The cumulative effect was considerable. We now know that the output of factories fell off, and the morale of workmen and the civilian population declined. If the material damage was not great, we have to remember that the aeroplane was then, by comparison, in its infancy ; and even now it is far from easy to hit a specific target. The aeroplane, flying at a terrific speed, is rarely completely horizontal when releas- ing bombs. A longitudinal or lateral tilt may gravely disturb his allowance for speed. The objective is small. Indeed, it is only in the warm German imagination that whole fleets are put out of action by a few casual bombs released by airmen who, on their own admission, are most anxious to return to their base.
But in the operations of the Independent Air Force we can at least see the gleam of a strategic idea. The colporteur raids over Germany may have some strategic inspiration. They are presumably designed as an attack on the civilian morale ; but the obstacles to success make one doubt their efficacy. The German mind is in prison ; and, even if the appeals addressed to it were infinitely more subtle and appropriate, can they penetrate the bars? The raid on Sylt was a very different matter. That was an argument which the Germans cannot fail to understand. But was it a mere incident or part of a strategic plan? The German raids on British and neutral shipping and on British naval bases are evidences of a strategy as definite as it is logical. They are designed to sweep shipping off the seas and make naval bases untenable for our warships. Each of them has a limited objective, but, together, they form a coherent whole; and, if they could win success, even fifty per cent. loss would not be too high a price to pay for such a victory. The counter-blockade would be a fact instead of the visionary project it has, so far, proved.
Have we any strategy beyond defence and reprisal? We could be surer that the matter is at least being considered if the older services were not still attempting to carve up the Air Force. The Navy has its own Fleet Air Arm ; but now the admirals are apparently clamouring for control of the Coastal Command. It is amazing that a service which has on occasion co-operated so perfectly with the Army cannot be content with the effective co-operation with the Air Force which is working so smoothly at present. The Army, too, seems, again, to be making claims which if granted might in the end prove to be the greatest disservice to itself. If the Air Force is to have any strategic effect on the war it is imperative that it should not be split up ; and soldiers who make so much play with the word " deadlock " should be the last to clip the wings of the Pegasus that may yet end the period of strategic attente. It is here, however, that they are ready with their defence. " Aviation," they would say, " can destroy but not exploit the results of material disorganisation.
This, however, does not penetrate to the root of the matter. All that it would suggest is the impossibility of winning a war by means of aircraft acting alone. Even this has been challenged. General Douhet based his plan on the assumption of a vigorous air offensive at a chosen moment, before a declaration of war. Heavy bombing aeroplanes should be sent to destroy the enemy aeroplanes before they could leave the ground. This phase of the attack should be carried out completely without fear or scruple ; and it is clear that, if complete surprise could be obtained, the attacker need not have more planes than the enemy or even as many. He would require only a sufficient number to bomb each aerodrome. Once the first phase was complete, the attacker, having complete command of the air, would then proceed to break up the enemy mobilisation and con- centration and destroy his railways, communications and barracks. All the essentials of his war-potential would follow—factories, electrical undertakings and telephone- centres.
It has been said that the German attack on Poland drew heavily on this plan. Otherwise it cannot directly interest us, now or at any time, since no support would ever be found here for a plan which set international law so com- pletely at defiance. It is evident, also, that the plan would be something of a gamble at best. But there are certain suggestions in it that might provide the elements of a reason- able air strategy. If the West Wall is to be breached, the successful assault will depend upon the perfect co-operation of all arms. In such an attack the aeroplanes which are allocated to the Army will play their definite and essential part. But is it not possible to conceive the Air Force carry- ing out a role of even greater importance? The artillery usually isolates the centre of attack ; but the Air Force could cut it off with a completeness that might be decisive. Road communications and all telephones could be severed. Head- quarters could be isolated. Troops assembling or assembled for counter-attack could be dispersed. Batteries could be put out of action ; and the attacking troops could be covered miles beyond the protection of their own artillery.
But if this were possible in case of attack, what better feint could be imagined? How could the enemy be dis- turbed and thrown off his balance more completely than by such tactics? Again, have all the possibilities of transporting troops been considered? Civilian planes are now being built to carry forty-four passengers. Is it, then, fanciful to imagine the day not distant when planes will carry ioo or more soldiers? If it is not, then concentrations of planes, no larger than those which were often seen in the last war, will be able to transport a complete division. In the last war there were many occasions when a division placed in a selected position would have turned an abortive attack into a decisive victory. If effective isolation could be combined with the transport of a division or two anew apparatus of attack would appear. The Air Force, in fine, has immense possibilities. At present we know little more than the alphabet of its powers. It should be encouraged to develop its own strategy.